Just about any Vietnamese language guide will tell you that you need to address men and women of different ages by certain titles. And just about every guide gets the titles wrong or neglects to mention a few. Here’s a quick guide to abiding by Vietnam’s culture of respect.
The titles don’t correspond to specific ages. Instead, you address people based on their age relative to yours. You’ll likely make mistakes when discerning ages, but the Vietnamese are generally pretty good natured about foreigners making mistakes.
Em – for anyone younger than you, male or female
Chi (gee) – a woman just a little older you
Co (koe) – a woman about as old as an aunt (about 40-60 if you’re 25)
Bà – a woman about as old as your grandmother (about 75 or older if you’re 25)
Anh (on) – a man just a little older than you
Chú (jew) – a man about as old as your uncle (about 40-60 if you’re 25)
Ong (ohm) – a man about as old as your grandfather (about 75 or older if you’re 25)
Bác (back) – men or women who older than co or chú but younger than Bà or Ong. If you’re in your mid-twenties, they would be about 60-75.
Con (cone) – a young child with whom you’re friendly. If you’re an adult, an elder who could be your parent and with whom you have an affectionate relationship might call you con.
The most common uses for these titles are when you’re greeting someone (“Chao anh”), thanking someone (“Cam on chi”) or trying to get someone’s attention (“Em oi!”). Don’t be shy. The worst that will happen is you’ll be laughingly corrected.